The first United States Jewish military chaplain was appointed during the Civil War. A few individuals were engaged in Jewish chaplaincy in prisons or hospitals by the late 19th century. However, a professional field of Jewish chaplaincy in health care, geriatric centers, and other civilian settings did not emerge until the mid-20th century, following World War II. In the post-war era a number of major American Jewish communities established local chaplaincy programs for hospitals, nursing homes, mental health facilities, and other institutions.
Initially, there was no professional organization of Jewish chaplains working in the field, and formal training was rare. That began to change by the 1980s. A small but growing number of people, mostly rabbis, chose Jewish chaplaincy and pursued additional training, especially Clinical Pastoral Education (CPE). By the late 1980s chaplains and major boards of rabbis began to discuss an organization that would unite Jewish chaplains across denominational lines.
Neshama: Association of Jewish Chaplains was founded in 1990 as the National Association of Jewish Chaplains at a conference in Atlantic City. Today there are some 300 professional members of the NAJC, and an additional 300 supporters including lay people, congregational rabbis, students, and Israeli affiliates. NAJC members serve in a variety of settings including geriatric venues, hospitals, hospices, Jewish community chaplaincy, prisons, mental health settings, and the military, as well as in pastoral care training and education.